A year is a long time in the life of a soccer club.
There was soul-searching in all corners of Dick's Goods Park after Pablo Mastroeni's men ended 2015 with a record of 9-15-10. They had finished 2014, his first season, on 8-18-8 after a horrible tailspin in the latter stages. The start of 2015 was little better, and they equaled the MLS record of 18 games without a win, straddled over the two seasons, before a stunning 4-0 win at FC Dallas. They were organized and dogged but lacked goals. Despite success in the Rocky Mountain Cup, plus eye-catching wins at Seattle and Sporting KC, it was a disappointment.
However, the Front Office decided the glass was half-full rather than half-empty. There was a plan. A document in which targets were set and expectations outlined. I know, I helped draft it.
Having resisted a change of staff, there needed to be a change in the staff. But, more than that, there had to be a reestablishment of the 'One Club' philosophy; a hard-working, collaborative focus on returning Colorado Rapids to their rightful relevancy in MLS.
The first item on the list was an experienced assistant head coach who knew the club and the league. John Spencer fitted the criteria perfectly. Then Tim Hinchey, Paul Bravo, Pádraig Smith, Claudio López and the technical team set about remodeling the side.
Fan favorites like Clint Irwin, Vicente Sánchez and Drew Moor moved on. The funds were reinvested in incisive attackers such as Shkëlzen Gashi and Marco Pappa, as well as ball-playing defensive players such as Eric Miller and Mekeil Williams.
Midfielder Micheal Azira was picked up off the scrap heap of the re-entry draft. If the award existed, he would be Unsung MLS Player of the Year. The imperious yet underrated Axel Sjöberg would be a nominee too. He seems to be the only 6'7" human that no-one notices when the gongs are handed out. But, then again, Rapids 2016 were about the "we" not the "me".
The team had a decent start. The story began in the home opener when Pappa thundered in an injury-time screamer to beat LA Galaxy. Gashi grabbed his first goal as Rapids won again at Sporting KC.
All of a sudden.
Jermaine Jones happened.
He signed just before the start of the campaign but was sidelined for six games due to a previous suspension. At the time, the word "gamble" was liberally used in the media. The USMNT midfielder took 21 minutes to score his first goal in Snowclasico II against New York Red Bulls on April 16. A swashbuckling Jones inspired Rapids to five wins and three draws in their next eight games, including another success at CenturyLink Field.
However, Mastroeni prides himself on his work ethic. Star players are fine but they only decorate a house built upon by the labor of craftsmen. Zac MacMath was performing expertly in goal; Marc Burch enjoyed arguably the best season in his long MLS career and Cronin-Azira become an impenetrable two-headed beast protecting the defense. Behind them Bobby Burling was the rock to Sjöberg's hard place.
They had Strength at Altitude and strength in numbers. Win, clean-sheet, win, draw, clean-sheet. They did not score much but, with their defense, they did not have to. Dick's Sporting Goods Park was a fortress, rattling up a record number of home wins and shutouts.
The acquisition of a seasoned USMNT international had been written on that document of intent. Jones fitted the criteria but, without question, Tim Howard was the biggest name that Rapids could have signed.
The results had already given relevance to Mastroeni's men. Jones and Howard added the quality to take them to the next level. Later in the season the U.S. would start a game with two Rapids starters for the first time since 2009.
After the fanfare of the keeper's July 4 arrival, Rapids settled back down with Marlon Hairston catching the eye. A single season club–record run of 15 games unbeaten came crashing down at New York City on July 30.
But Rapids' secret sauce has been their ability to respond and they came back with their most complete performance of the year in a 2-0 win over Vancouver. From then on August and September were scrappy. Aside, of course, for a trademark backs-to-the-wall win at title rivals Dallas in which Jared Watts displayed his growing maturity.
These were truly the hard yards of the season. But then you suspect Mastroeni's men sometimes likes it that way. It was the coaching staff who had jumped on the ‘Keep Fighting’ tifo unfurled by C38 against Real Salt Lake in May. It has become a hashtag, a scarf and t-shirt. But it was always Rapids' DNA and the supporters had captured it perfectly.
An elbows-out victory over defending champions Portland on October 1 finally secured a Playoff place. Then successive wins put them in position to snatch their first ever Supporters' Shield. By now, Dominique Badji was among the goals and Dillon Powers was the pulling strings.
The narrow, hard-fought win (a well-worn phrase this year) over San Jose Earthquakes on October 13 saw Kevin Doyle back from injury to bag a crucial brace. It restored Rapids to the top of the pile for the first time since June 22.
In the end, they could not capture the Supporters' Shield but, as runners-up, they did secure CONCACAF Champions League soccer next season and an important advantage for the Playoffs.
The semifinal first leg at LA Galaxy was difficult and, as ever, Rapids were not favored by the ‘experts' to progress after losing 1-0.
We all know Gashi hit THAT goal to tie up the aggregate score and Howard made THAT save to secure safe passage in the shoot-out. But, much more importantly, Rapids bossed the second leg and utterly deserved to go through. It had been arguably the greatest soccer spectacle seen at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
Now, in the cold light of day, most of us will concede that Seattle deserved to win the Western Conference Championship. They bossed the first leg at CenturyLink Field and then Jordan Morris poked a lethal dagger into Rapids' season when he lifted that shot over MacMath early in the second half of the second leg. It was a disappointing end to the season but hopefully the start of something much bigger.
Yes, there will be changes in the offseason - players in and players out - but the Rapids have a rich seam of talent now. The likes of Joseph Greenspan and Dennis Castillo barely appeared in the side but they certainly have a future at the club.
Meanwhile, the return of alumni such as Chris Martinez and Marcelo Balboa should provide a welcome boost to the youth set-up. Although, despite retaining the Galway Cup in 2016, it is important to remember that their work may take years to bear fruit.
We can now return to that preseason document and see red lines through the vast majority of action points. Even the ones that were crucial yet not front-of-mind for most supporters:
- Securing the continuing support of Transamerica
- Increasing the season ticket base
- Maneuvering your roster to allow further developments in the years to come
- Maintaining a pipeline of progression from our Academy (Home Grown) and USL affiliate Charlotte Independence
Has everything been ticked? No.
Is everything perfect? No.
Hinchey, Bravo, Smith, López, Mastroeni et al must chisel their roster into shape once more. They will certainly look for more goals while retaining the defensive solidity that has been the foundation of the team's success. Like Irwin, Moor and Sánchez last winter, there will be concern over the departures. Like last winter, we'll have to wait and see who is correct.
However, a slew of records suggest that 2016 was the best season in the club's history. Better, in a way, than 2010, when the team sneaked into the Playoffs with a late run and managed to go all the way.
Certainly, there are firmer foundations upon which to build a dynasty. And that means a Rapids side who are perennial Playoff qualifiers and serious silverware hunters more often than not.
The crowd at Dick's Sporting Goods Park have voted with their feet. Attendances are up eight per cent since the dark days of 2014 and, before this season had ended, the Rapids' were guaranteed to start next term with a record number of Season Ticket Members. C38’s move to dominate the south stands created an electric atmosphere for the playoff games that this club has never witnessed or experienced before. Long may it continue.
This article is not about forcing critics to eat crow or told-you-so taunting. But it is about the many, many people - in the front office, the back office, the pitch and in the stands - who have kept fighting for many, many years for a season such as 2016.
You know who you are. Thank you.
As we speak a new plan is being finalized. Discussion after discussion, re-write after re-write, it will take time to fit all the pieces into the puzzle. And don't expect to see the full picture until we kickoff in March 2017.
But there is a vision. There is a plan. Who knows if it will deliver as well as 2016, but hopefully it uses this season as foundation stone.
If it can, then this may go down in history as the year that Colorado Rapids turned the corner.